john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    John 14 - Stephen - the gaze of the protomartyr

    Bridestowe and Lydford Communion Services,
    22/5/2011


    Acts 7:55-60, John 14:1-14


    You can imagine it as a scene in a Hollywood biblical movie. An angry crowd jostling around the victim at their centre; shots of some of them bending to the sandy ground to pick up rocks and stones; close-ups of rocks being passed from hand to hand; Stephen at the centre being pushed, sworn and spat at - the viewer's prior knowledge of the story making them expectant that at any moment now Stephen is about to become the protomartyr - the first of Jesus' followers ever to be mobbed and killed in a similar fashion to the Lord himself. As the crowd raise their hands ready to stone him to death, the camera closes in on Stephen's face, the focus softens, the soundtrack fades from angry mob to heavenly harps, and the awestruck man framed there exclaims adoringly, 'Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!' [1]

    Today's talk is about the gaze of Stephen, and about us: on whom we fix our gaze, and how that makes us the people that we are.

    We need to reel back a few frames to recall why Stephen was in this position. Acts chapter six tells the story: Stephen was one of the so-called 'seven men of good standing' who the community of the disciples appointed to the task of distributing food to the widows among them. He was chosen for being 'full of the Spirit and of wisdom', anointed by the apostles, and from that moment Stephen's star began to rise. Growing in influence in the rapidly-expanding movement of believers in Jerusalem, we are told that 'Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.' [Acts 6. 8]

    But not everyone watching him liked what they saw. Not everyone listening to him liked what he said. In the multicultural mix of Jerusalem at that time, with anything up to five separate synagogues serving a range of groups from across the diaspora, Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking, Stephen used his position to make a very public speech which redefined the salvation history of Israel by concluding that 'the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands' [Acts 7.48], a clear reference to the claim of Jesus to be the rebuilder of the Temple, which ended in his crucifixion. Stephen's speech accused his hearers of being '[a] stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears'. 'You are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit,' he said, 'just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.'

    This speech came at a time of great social and religious turmoil in Jerusalem, with many different groups of people watching each other, ready to react to what the others were saying or doing, with a nervous hierarchy keen to crush any perceived threats to their position. So it was probably inevitable that Stephen's great godliness combined with his radically reconstructive biblical preaching and his judgement on them, would result in their taking the law into their own hands and stoning him to death. The people of Jerusalem had gazed on something very similar happening to another One, not long before.

    The New Testament contains accounts of three killings - each time the killing of one who had made a new testimony about God, or revealed a new vision of heaven to the people. The stoning of Stephen followed the crucifixion of Jesus, but before these two comparable events came the beheading of John the Baptist.

    John, as you will recall, was killed by Herod Antipas after a period of imprisonment because John had publicly reproved Herod for divorcing his wife, and unlawfully taking his brother's wife Herodias. On Herod's birthday, Herodias' daughter danced before the king and his guests, and in response to Herod's promise to give her anything she desired, she asked for what her mother most wanted: the head of John the Baptist on a platter. [Matthew 14.3-13]

    Now today's talk is about the gaze of Stephen, and about us: on whom we fix our gaze, and how that makes us the people that we are. And it's instructive to consider who was fixated on who in the story of John's demise. Because John, although he is rightly secured in history as the great prophet of the coming Messiah, came to an untimely end because he got himself embroiled in a cycle of scandal with Herod. There was Herod Antipas, wrapped up in a vision of his own imperial might and power, and John had got himself fixated on the bad behaviour of the king and his family court, determined to blow the whistle on his errant ways.

    It was John who some time previously had stood together with Jesus in the River Jordan, at Jesus' baptism, when the heavens opened over their heads, and the voice of the Father from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' [Matthew 1.17]. But rather than keeping his gaze fixed on that glorious vision as a guide and direction for his future life John instead got caught up in a deadly rivalry with a king whose desires became John's own. John gazed on Herod and embraced the king's desire for power and influence by any means: John's vision of a Messiah was of one who would come to judge and rule with violence: 'the winnowing fork [..] in his hand to clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, ready to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire' [Luke 3.16-17].

    But the Messiah he had baptised was not the violent judge John anticipated. Hearing about John's imprisonment in Herod's court Jesus said, 'From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force'. [Matthew 11.12] Applied to the situation of Herod and John, Jesus' words carry two meanings - of a king fixated on vengeance over the one who criticised him for his moral failings, and of a prophet also fixated on vengeance that he thought the kingdom of heaven would enforce: a vengeance of unquenchable fire. Sadly John's fixation on the desires of King Herod meant that the prophet went to his death without recognising the coming of Jesus' loving nonviolent kingdom of grace. [2]

    We can imagine Hollywood taking hold of the beheading of John and making a hero of him. Following the usual movie format John would probably have got his vengeance, somehow. Picture this: the court of Herod gasping as the prison executioner brings the head of John the Baptist into their dining hall for all to see; but the camera cuts away to the empty prison cell beneath which, unknown to the king's guests, is burning violently - John set the flames the moment before they took him away to be killed, and now these flames are licking the floorboards beneath Herod's feet.

    Hollywood might do this because it is fixated with what has been called 'the myth of redemptive violence' [3] - the very powerful and all-pervasive belief that retribution is a solution: that if you do violence to the one who violenced you, then that will put things right. It is the way of the kingdom of heaven as John envisioned it; it's not the way of the kingdom of heaven as Jesus demonstrated it. They had fixed their gaze on different people, and that made them arrive at different visions of the kingdom of heaven.

    So who did Jesus fix his gaze on? The answer is clear: Jesus was fixated on the Other one, the third person who was there at his baptism. The one who from an open heaven called him his Son, his beloved. The one who must have cried as Jesus did at the violence being done to him at Calvary; the one he cried out to on the cross, the one whose relationship with Jesus was one of perfect love - the Father. Look at the gospels even briefly and you'll soon come to see that Jesus was fixated on his Father. And that relationship makes him the saviour that he is.

    Jesus tried to help his disciples to see the Father in the same way as he did, so that their lives could be embraced into that relationship of perfect, unrivalrous, love. Jesus tried to open their eyes to the truth that the Father and the Son are so unified in this bond of love that to see the Son is to see the Father, to see the works of the Son is to see the works of the Father. The disciples struggled to catch this vision, more used to keeping their eyes fixed on each other with whom they competed for status and approval, making them the rivalrous people that they were. But Jesus promised them a dwelling-place in his Father's house - a vision of a heavenly future - alongside a vision of a heavenly here-and-now if they would only open their eyes to see: 'If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.'

    Which brings us back to the question of where we are fixing our gaze. It is a crucial question because our life, our character, is defined by who we are looking at - we want what the other wants, we desire what the other desires, and the way we go about following these desires makes us who we are. Our friends anxious to move to a bigger better property, start us thinking we should be relocating; the brother desperate to impress his father causing the other brother to go even further to make an impression. This is how another preacher puts it:
    The modern notion of autonomy [has been exploded] to reveal that each of our Self's is, in reality, an indwelling of the Others. It is the desires of Others which determines our desires. The key to true freedom, then, is not being rid of the Others. That's impossible. The key to true freedom is which Other most determines our desires. John's theology of indwelling has this down pat. It is when God's loving desire comes to dwell in us through Christ that we can begin to become free from the slavish, deadly desires of all the other Others. [4]
    The desire of Jesus was to know the Father and to do his works. This was a relationship of perfect unrivalrous love which Jesus embraced so fully that he deeply desired that his disciples should share it. It is the opposite of those desires which forge rivalry, like those of John the Baptist and Herod Antipas - who became so similar to each other in their desire for power by violent means, like those of Jesus' disciples squabbling over their position in the group. Jesus' desire for the disciples to share in his and his Father's love is precisely the desire which Stephen displayed as he fixed his gaze on his beloved Lord and said, 'Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!'

    In the face of the evidence in the book of Acts I think that Hollywood would find it difficult to make a vengeful hero of Stephen. He was totally wrapped up in a loving relationship with God, Father and Son. When he looked up to heaven at the moment before his death it wasn't a one-off vision that he saw. Earlier, the narrative records that 'all who sat in the council looked intently at [Stephen], and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.' The face of one whose gaze was fixed - permanently, not just for a singular moment - on God.

    Stephen was the protomartyr - killed for his beliefs, and by a mob consisting of 'his own' people. But vengeance was not on his lips. Rather the words he spoke as he fell to the ground under the hail of rocks and stones echoed those of Jesus to his Father on the Cross:
    While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he died. [Acts 7.59-60]
    So we have considered the gaze of Stephen, and thought about on whom we fix our gaze, on whom we base our desires; for that makes us the people that we are. And this is why we often find ourselves needing to pray this prayer, with which I close:
    Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy Name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. [5]


    Notes
    [1] Opening passage influenced by James Alison, Raising Abel, p.79: 'Luke apparently writes like a Hollywood scriptwriter...'
    [2] See Anthony W. Bartlett's treatment of John in Virtually Christian, pp.225-239
    [3] See Walter Wink, Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence, Ekklesia, 16 Nov 2007, and Wink's 'Powers' trilogy.
    [4] Paul Neuchterlein's notes, girardianlectionary.net, Easter 5a
    [5] Collect for Purity, Book of Common Prayer